The Sun was beginning to dip below the horizon before the lights of the junction appeared to the party. Unlike The Boulevard in the Outer Valleys, however, no one seemed to be in a hurry to get indoors as night approached. Lines of evertorches lit up both the roadway, as well as the green stretches on either side of the path, and people seemed quite comfortable traveling as the sun went down. Jeremy even spotted groups of people off the road way surrounding themselves with evertorches and lighting up fire pits. Soon the smell of roaring meat and vegetables wafted up to the youth’s nostrils, and his stomach growled in appreciation.
“As old times,” a voice whispered quietly in Jeremy’s ear.
Michael turned, “Did you say something, Jeremy?”
“Hmm, it must have been a ringing in my ear. No matter.” Walter an Ama exchanged a brief glance, but Michael didn’t take notice. “Walter, do you have lodging planned for this evening?”
Walter cleared his throat. “Well, we had just assumed we’d spend the evening at the lodge. It’s as good a place as any, and I don’t have many friends out this way I could have messaged.”
“No, sir. I cannot allow that. The lodges are mediocre at best, but the one at this junction has become more ill-reputed over the last several years. I insist we call on a friend of mine. He is an old retired guard and will certainly welcome us.”
Walter nodded silently, which caused Michael to grin. As the party began to make it’s way toward the junction, Jeremy spied rows of houses lining the road. Ahead he spotted crowds of people laughing and walking between several buildings which seemed to line a town square. When they arrived, however, Jeremy discovered it wasn’t a square, but a “T.” A second road, slightly narrower than The Boulevard but just as well maintained, stretched off toward the South. As this road exited the junction, it was lined by buildings which housed several shops, and not a few restaurants.
“That, Jeremy, is First Run. We’ll be heading down that way tomorrow on our way to Meadow Run. Tonight, however, we need to pass down The Boulevard a bit further to reach my friend’s home. It will be far more comfortable than the lodge, I assure you.” Michael pointed to a tall building at the corner of the intersection which Jeremy’s eyes had previously skipped-over. It wasn’t an unpleasant structure, but was utilitarian rather than beautiful. Against the backdrop of the other well-adorned buildings in the junction, it appeared rather drab and unwelcoming.
“What is the name of this town, Michael?”
Michal grinned slightly and shook his head. “Officially, the junction isn’t a town at all – so it doesn’t have a name.”
“But, how can this not be a town? People live here, and there are businesses, and restaurants and everything.”
“Yes, lad, but look carefully. What don’t you see?”
Jeremy stopped and concentrated on his surroundings. As he did so, the purple haze in his vision began to become more pronounced and his breathing quickened. He felt a hand gently brush his shoulder and Ama’s voice whispered in his ear, “Concentrate on the shapes, Jeremy. It will help the colors become less pronounced.” He closed his eyes and nodded. Taking a deep breath, Jeremy opened his eyes and concentrated on the angles of the buildings around him. It took several moments for him to realize what was missing, but finally recognized the vacuum.
“There’s no council building, Walter. That’s what’s missing.”
“Right you are, lad, well done.”
“But why isn’t there a council building?”
“Ahh, well that gets to the heart of politics here in The Valleys. You see, incorporated towns are afforded certain legal rights and privileges – such as representation in the Senate.”
“So, why wouldn’t a place like this be incorporated?”
Michael chuckled, “Taxes. Unincorporated settlements don’t pay taxes for the maintenance of their infrastructure. Nor do they have to pay for the upkeep of a council building or the salary of a sitting senator. The people lose some direct privileges, in return for relief of some of the burdens of government.”
“So who does represent these people?”
It was Ama who responded, “The junction is considered part of Meadow Run’s district, Jeremy. So, the people here pay a certain level of taxes to that town in exchange for representation.”
Walter growled quietly. “People trading their rights for a bit of cash, I’ll never understand it.”
“The system has worked for years, Walter.”
“Yes, Meddle, for tiny settlements as they got started. But look around you.” Walter waved his arms, indicating all the structures around them. “The folks care about their money bags being full, and nothing else. But, since the junction isn’t a town there aren’t any schools here. Nor can a healer ever set up shop in this place. Folks 30 miles down First Run make their decisions, and so folks here are lifted of the ‘burden’ of real citizenship. It makes me nauseous, I tell you.”
As Walter spoke, a grin emerged on Michael’s face.
“Just what are you smiling at, Michael?”
“Hearing you speak, Walter, made me think you and my friend are going to get along splendidly. I’ve often heard the same sentiments from him as I travel to and from my posting.”
“Well, let’s hope so.”
The party lapsed into silence for a time as Michael led them through the junction. The went about a mile further West down The Boulevard before they came to a well-lit homestead on the North side of the road. Michael led them through a small gate and motioned them up to the entrance of the home.
“Michael, you never mentioned your friend’s name. Who is he?”
“Ah, yes. I forgot, you certainly know him. His name is Tollen. Tollen Mhastel.”
Ama’s eyes widened slightly. Walter had just enough time to mutter, “Oh no,” before the door to the home opened – revealing a old man with a stooped frame that echoed of past strength and vitality. His emerald eyes landed on Michael and a smile emerged on his face. As he took in the rest of the party, however, he spied Walter. The smile was quickly replaced with a scowl.
Walter smiled uncomfortably and held out a hand in greeting. “Hello old man. Uhh, I’m back?”
The man in the doorway did not return Walter’s smile. Rather, he held his gaze upon Walter for several heartbeats – expression neutral. Finally scowled and slammed to door, leaving the party outside.
“Well, Old Fox, I’d say that went as well we might have expected.”